Learning In Unexpected Ways

How learning and “the curb cut effect” can intersect.

Posted Jul 07, 2013

I have had hearing loss for as long as I can remember. It’s something that’s “normal” for me – but every now and again, it impacts my life in a way that surprises me, peripherally or directly. 

Man leaning back at front of meeting room with laptop, no one else in room.
At work, I attend a lot of meetings – and at “town hall” or training style events, there’s a dynamic that often amuses me.  Rooms always fill up back-to-front.  No-one wants to sit in the front.  When you suggest it, people squirm.  Yet, I feel no discomfort at this.  I sit in the front, and always have.

From time to time, people will praise me for my “courage” in sitting in the front row – my willingness to be visible. Others look at me resentfully, thinking my sitting in the front is an attempt to ingratiate myself to the speaker – to be “the teacher’s pet.” The reality is much simpler.

I sit in front so that I can hear. I’ve been doing so since grade school, when my issues with hearing were first identified.  I don’t know if I ever had the discomfort I often see in so many others, but if I did, I’ve long since left it behind.  I had to.

Because people often misread this behavior, I’m often prompted to wonder how this seemingly little thing has impacted the larger part of my life.  Obviously, it forced me to become more comfortable with sitting in front.  Did this make me more visible?  How did teachers interpret it back then? How did my peers?  For that matter, how does it affect me in the corporate world today?

People sometimes think it odd that I spend so much time thinking about dynamics like this, but it’s something that I’ve always had a curiosity about. And, really, it’s a bit of a survival skill.  Like it or not, in our culture little differences can really become a big deal, if not dealt with appropriately.  Perceptions are often mistaken for reality, in ways that can sometimes be devastating. Because of this, I’ve been forced to become a student of people, and especially of communication.

The closed captioning symbol, a TV surrounding the letters
The fact is, for me, having hearing loss has been a learning experience. This has been true in many ways.  When my hearing loss was first identified, closed captioning wasn’t in existence.  When watching TV, as I often did in real life, I compensated by reading lips (or turning up the the TV).  I was so used to this, when closed captioning became common, it didn’t really occur to me that I could benefit from it.  

I don’t remember what made me re-consider, but a few years ago, I decided to switch on closed captioning on all of my TVs. I was amazed by what I had been missing. Movies I thought I knew took on whole new facets.  Conversations that I thought I knew by heart, weren’t quite as I had thought.  There were whole bits of dialog I’d missed altogether. Wow.  

But what surprised me the most about the experience was what I learned about the social world. I previously wrote about how the commentaries often included on DVDs and Blu-rays have taught me a great deal about body language and other such cues.  I now found that closed captioning had a quite similar effect with verbal expression.  It was a whole new view into how these things conveyed meaning – stuff that they don’t cover in a dictionary. 

Take, for example, the word “scoff.” The Oxford Dictionary defines the verb “scoff” as “speak to someone or about something in a scornfully derisive or mocking way.” I had thought that I had a good understanding of what it meant to “scoff,” yet what I began to see was that the word encompassed far more than I realized.

In many instances, the captions would identify someone as “scoffing” even if they weren’t speaking at all. A “scoff” could simply be a noise. The first time I saw that, I congratulated myself that I already understood it – I’d picked up on a meaning beyond the dictionary definition. Yet, the next time I saw it used, I realized that what I recognized as a “scoff” was really only one small variation of what others identified as such.

In practice, “scoff” was used in far more contexts than I had expected.  Why would a father, for example, “scoff” at his wife’s suggestion that he attend his teenage daughter’s memorial service, as in this screen shot from Caprica?

 (scoffs) I'm sorry Sweetheart, I just can't.

Further, the sounds classified as “scoffs” could vary greatly as well. Sometimes “scoff” could mean a standalone sound, other times it could reference the tone of the speech, other times the subject might “scoff,” but then speak – were they all one and the same? Or separate?

 (Scoffs) I was there!

Another example happened when, while flipping through the channels, I chanced upon an old favorite: Terminator 2, just at the iconic reveal where we see the new buff, warrior-esque Sarah Connor for the first time, being gawked at by a crowd of curious clinicians.  As she turned to face them, a single word appeared on the screen: “Seething.


My previous understanding of the term fit well with the dictionary definition:  to “be filled with intense but unexpressed anger.” Yet, it’s rare that closed captions provide emotional annotations. Hearing loss does not, by itself, impact reading body language or other non-verbal social cues – so if an emotional state can be read via those modalities, it’s rarely noted.  So, why mention it here? What precisely were they trying to convey that couldn’t be read through sight alone?

I started noting other times when the word appeared – and each time it did appear there were common facial expressions associated with it. But there was also a common sound, a hissing breath that came between clenched teeth.  Could THAT be what the captions were referencing?

 Woman with a distressed face, captioned Seething.

If that were true, would that mean that “seething” is about more than just emotion — that it’s also something one DOES? That’s an interesting question...and, well, if you think about it, it calls into question the dictionary definition.  If there are common facial expressions, and a common vocal expression that indicate that you’re “seething,” then the anger isn’t really “unexpressed” is it?

Turns out that whatever it’s meant to represent, it’s common enough that when we anthropomorphize apes, we have THEM do it.

Scene from Rise of the Planet of the Apes -- Caesar is captioned as seething.

What do I take from all of this? While many people see the concept of disability as a clearly undesirable thing, I can’t say the same is true for me. What others see as a disability or a limitation, has had unexpected benefits in my life as well as challenges. Much of what I’ve learned in life is deeply intertwined who I am, and who I am includes being autistic and having hearing loss – and sometimes what I learn about one of my disabilities is facilitated by the other.

Wrapped up in all of this is the truth that the accommodations that society makes to help people with disabilities, often has the side effect of making life easier in ways that were never expected when they were put in place – a concept called “the curb cut effect.”  When the curb cut effect is discussed, it’s usually used to show how accommodations put in place for people with disabilities make life easier for those without disabilities – how many people use curb cuts who aren’t in a wheelchair? People on bicycles, parents with strollers, people pushing shopping carts, etc.

However, observing how accommodations I’ve sought for hearing loss, made my life easier as an autistic adult has made it clear to me that the curb cut effect isn’t just about how accommodations for people with disabilities make people’s lives better that don’t have disabilities. Accommodations make life better for everyone, in ways we don’t always expect.

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My first book, Living Independently on the Autism Spectrum, is currently available at most major retailers, including Books-A-MillionChapters/Indigo (Canada)Barnes and Noble, and Amazon

To read what others have to say about the book, visit my web site: www.lynnesoraya.com.


Why Closed Captioning Isn't Just For Deaf People

“…now that I have closed captioning, a whole new world has been opened up to me. I'm able to read very quickly and process several words at once, so I can keep up pretty well with dialogue. I wish I had closed captioning for everything everyone said in real life; maybe I wouldn’t feel so stupid every time I had conversations with people.” 

WrongPlanet.net: Closed Captioning During TV Programs and Movies

“I most definitely prefer the closed captioning be on while I'm watching T.V. I have a really hard time filtering out background noise, so if it weren't for closed captioning I'd probably miss a lot of what is being said during a program. Even simple noises like me eating something crunchy while watching T.V. will make it hard to hear all of what's being said." 

How to Teach Autistic Children

Use closed captions on a television to promote reading. The closed captions on a television allow the child to simultaneously associate printed words with spoken words. If a child has a favorite television show, record the show with the closed captions and incorporate the show as part of the reading lesson

Gary Karp: The Curb Cut Effect

“Now, how many of you have heard of the curb cut effect? Does anybody know about this? Well, let me tell you. What happened when they started cutting the curbs? Who else benefitted from this? Bicyclists, parents with strollers, elderly people, delivery people, skateboarders …Another example of it is the closed captioning that has been designed for the hearing impaired community. Now, do you think anybody was sitting around thinking, “Hmmm, how are we going to solve that problem of not being able to hear the television in a bar?” Nobody cared…nobody imagined that they should somehow change the whole television system…but here we have closed captioning. Ah ha! Look at that! We can use it this way!”

Fueling the Creation of New Electronic Curb Cuts

Television (TV) manufacturers in the U.S. will tell you that their caption decoders for the deaf wound up benefiting tens-of-millions more consumers than originally intended. As the electronic curb cut effect has shown in the past, televisions with decoders are simply better than those without. For example, captioning can enable TV viewers to:

  • search for and retrieve video content, by word, through the use of multimedia databases;
  • listen to programs in silence while someone is sleeping;
  • listen to programs in noisy environments like sports bars;
  • watch their favorite program while talking on the telephone, without appearing rude to the person being spoken to;
  • read more effectively, and at an earlier age, by enabling them to see the words being spoken at the same time they hear them (i.e. Sesame Street);
  • learn to read/speak a second language by displaying foreign words at the same time they are being spoken; and,
  • understand foreign programming through the use of native language captions



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